Saturday, May 25, 2024

Bellator 290 fight card — Ryan Bader vs. Fedor Emelianenko: Three storylines to watch for debut on CBS

In the first MMA event to air on CBS since 2010, Bellator 290 invades the Kia Forum in Inglewood, California, on Saturday featuring a pair of title bouts and the final walk to the cage for Russian heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko. 

The primetime network television event will feature Emelianenko, 46, fighting a second time for the Bellator heavyweight title in a rematch with champion Ryan Bader (CBS, 9 p.m. ET). In the co-main event of the three-bout main card, unbeaten middleweight champion Johnny Eblen makes his first title defense against Team Fedor challenger Anatoly Tokov. 

The preliminary card, which begins at 6 p.m. ET on YouTube and Pluto TV, also features a who’s who across the Bellator roster including Neiman Gracie, Lorenz Larkin, Steve Mowry, Alejandra Lara, Darrion Caldwell and many more. 

Let’s take a closer look at the biggest storylines entering this weekend. 

1. Scott Coker digs deep into promotional playbook for worthy prime time gamble

Coker, the Bellator president and former CEO of Strikeforce, wasn’t the first promoter to bring the sport of MMA to network television. That distinction goes to EliteXC, which produced blockbuster ratings through a trio of cards in 2008 — three years before UFC would sign a landmark deal with Fox — behind the mainstream lure of backyard brawler Kimbo Slice. But after Slice’s upset loss to late replacement Seth Petruzelli at EliteXC: Heat saw the promotion abruptly dissolve into bankruptcy, Coker resurrected the strategy in November 2009. A Strikeforce event, co-promoted by the Emelianenko-repped M-1 Global, saw a viewership peak of 5.46 million on CBS when the legendary Fedor knocked out unbeaten Brett Rogers with one devastating right hand. Fourteen years later, Coker is back with a new promotion but is looking to benefit from the same strategy. The fact that Emelianenko is still active, let alone a viable heavyweight title contender entering his final fight is remarkable and the storyline alone makes Coker’s retro-fitted experiment worth the risk, even with the marked changes to television consumption in recent years and the onset of streaming. (Bellator 290 will also air simulcast on Paramount+.) Coker’s initial CBS run lasted less than one year, largely because of an infamous post-fight brawl in Nashville that scared away network executives. But the sport has evolved in massive ways over the ensuing decade, which begs the question whether Bellator 290 represents an interesting trial for the promotion with the possibility of future close-ups to come.    

2. Emelianenko brings a puncher’s chance to a shot at a storybook ending

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Yes, Emelianenko is 46. And, yes, nearly all of the memorable victories that have helped him gain almost universal acclaim as the greatest heavyweight in the sport’s history came north of 15 years, largely under the Pride banner in Japan. But Fedor’s twilight has also been sneaky successful. Ever since a trio of losses in Strikeforce had most wondering whether retirement was looming, Emelianenko is 10-2 over the past decade. Simply rewatching his 2019 first-round knockout loss to Bader in the finals of the Bellator World Grand Prix tournament doesn’t tell the full story about how live of a small underdog he actually is. Emelianenko, who knocked out former title challenger and top contender Timothy Johnson in 2021 to make this fight possible, still wields heavy power and deceptively quick hands. And Bader, the 39-year-old defending champion, has been stopped twice in the last three years alone, albeit at light heavyweight where he was once Bellator champion. Emelianenko told CBS Sports this week that he will 100% retire regardless of Saturday’s outcome, which offers him the possibility of a walk-off ending to one of the most important and unique MMA careers that feels straight out of a movie script. If Emelianenko truly is the best MMA fighter to never step foot in the UFC’s Octagon and one who is remarkably still relevant in the larger debate of the sport’s G.O.A.T., the cherry on top of capturing a heavyweight title from a major promotion in his final performance is about as wholesome as this sport gets. 

3. Sabah Homasi-Brennan Ward has fight of the year written all over it

The opener of Saturday’s three-fight main card offers a welterweight tilt with no shortage of expectations from the standpoint of violence. Both Homasi and Ward have proven in recent years to be the kind of old school cowboys that hard-core fight fans love thanks to an ever-present willingness to risk disaster in order to score a highlight-reel finish. Homasi, a battle-tested veteran of both UFC and Strikeforce, isn’t far removed from a 2021 war with Paul Daley that was instantly hailed as one of the most dramatic and combustible battles in Bellator history. But this can’t-miss action clash offers much more in the ongoing redemption arc of Ward. The 34-year-old gunslinger enters his third fight in 12 months of what has already been a comeback for the ages. Ward, a former Bellator middleweight title challenger, sat idle for nearly five years beginning in 2017 amid a dark period of extreme drug abuse and multiple brushes with the law. Not only has his recovery been nothing short of miraculous, Ward subsequently revealed that even ahead of his biggest fights under the Bellator banner, he rarely ever trained as addiction began to take over his life. Homasi represents a significant step up in competition from the two knockouts Ward initially scored to open his 2022 return but he has promised to bring the same all-or-nothing mentality inside the cage that once made him a fan favorite. 

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